Steven Soderbergh is one of those directors who often seem to be imprisoned by their own prodigious talent. Intelligent, inventive, and amazingly prolific, he also has a maddening tendency to latch onto a theme and obsessively hammer it at the expense of vitality and spontaneity. In some cases, such as Che, this approach refreshingly drains the subject matter of potential sentimentality, but in others, such as sex, lies and videotape and The Girlfriend Experience, you sense that promising, evocative material has been reduced to an attractive assemblage of found objects. Soderbergh is one of the most self-conscious of American auteurs, and that self-consciousness can often eclipse whatever feelings the film at hand is meant to evoke. And with this in mind, it's logical that Soderbergh often does his best work when he's attempting to behave by studio standards and make a crowd-pleaser, as that appears to give the filmmaker a pretense to run comparatively wild with his instinct and considerable knowledge of film craft.
Magic Mike, the director's loosest and most purely enjoyable film since The Limey, is an exhilarating case in point. Constructing a star vehicle for the underrated Channing Tatum, based somewhat on his real early experiences as a stripper, Soderbergh stages a film that suggests what might have happened if Jean-Luc Godard had been inexplicably tapped to direct one of Tom Cruise's schlocky 1980s testaments to self-realization, particularly Cocktail. Reid Carolin's script, a resolutely formulaic romance in which a rootless bad boy learns to enjoy the fruits of monogamous sex and conventional employment, is invigorated by the same process of de-emphasis that Soderbergh employed in Erin Brockovich. The scenes you expect to serve as the film's big emotional crescendos are nearly tossed off in favor of moments that provide more ambiguous and amorphous context of a specific lifestyle.
That method has its risks, as it could represent a director's tedious attempt to hold himself above the material, but Soderbergh, surprisingly, clearly enjoys Mike's (Tatum) world of instant cash and drugs and plentiful casual sex. The scold who made The Girlfriend Experience has temporarily left the building, and so we rarely feel that points are being scored on Mike and his cadre of supernaturally jacked co-workers, who're featured in backstage moments that recall similar episodes in The Wrestler. Until the mechanics of the third act inevitably kick in, the sex scenes are allowed to be fun, and the strip routines, which resemble burlesque, are infectiously giddy. We're allowed to enjoy the kinds of vicarious naughty thrills that compel us to go to strip clubs to begin with. Soderbergh, a superb stylist, conjures a netherworld of party-hearty sin that many of us suspect (and hope) is somewhere to be found in plain sight.
Soderbergh's control of this film is so certain that the narrative's eventual dip into despair almost comes as an authentic shock. Mike's loneliness, which is established gracefully in his duets with a gorgeous non-committal psych student (Olivia Munn), eventually becomes the film's inevitable subject. Soderbergh equates Mike's confusion and longing with contemporary American self-loathing and anxiety in a fashion that manages to avoid mounting the soapbox because we've been allowed to experience the authentic, enviable pleasures his current lifestyle affords. One moment, the best in Tatum's career so far, finds Mike so confused by the internal battle between his desires and his self-delusional rationalizations that he's rendered momentarily speechless, and truly naked, in front of a young woman he authentically likes. Magic Mike is a genre film, but the formulaic structure allows one of America's best directors to engagingly explore one of his continual themes: the disorienting relationship between sex, commerce, and the American dream.
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Consciously designed to resemble a 1970s American movie, right down to the era-appropriate Warner Bros. logo, Magic Mike boasts a fair amount of grain as well as, at times, intentionally murky blacks. Reds, yellows, and blues also dominate the night scenes, which are contrasted with the washed-out sandy hues of the daylight moments. This transfer beautifully preserves the filmmaker's intentions, maintaining the intended grain levels while rendering the nightclub colors with a pristine sharpness that registers the contrast between the dance sequences and the more visually vague after-hour party scenes, which allows one to intuitively understand the danger that's meant to be detected in the latter. The 5.1 DTS-HD track is equally impressive, boasting exacting attention to sonic detail and dimension, particularly in the numerous dance and party sequences.
Magic Mike, an engaging pop ensemble film with compelling thematic undercurrents, is the kind of movie that inspires hopes for a good commentary track with the filmmakers and actors. Sadly, those hopes are dashed, as the scant extras only really exist to further promote the dance sequences. "Behind the Scenes: Backstage on Magic Mike" is a traditional puff piece meant to air as a promo on cable-TV stations. Dance Play Mode collects the dance sequences together as a 20-minute short, and the deleted scenes are compromised of extra bits that were trimmed from the dancers' routines. And that's it.
The extras are a little, um, bare, but this transfer of one of the best American films of the year is otherwise superb.